Big night in prospect? Then pauwa-up with a few tasty tipples that go by just that name; and accompany each drink with its corresponding, delightfully diminutive snackerel.
At long last, London has a genuine Indian answer to the capital’s tapas bars and endless Aperol-fuelled aperitivo hours. Talli Joe’s ‘Pauwas & Chakhnas’ menu is designed by hip young Indians (award-winning bar consultant, Nitin Tewari, and head chef Sameer Taneja) but it’s designed to be relished by any Tom, Dipu and Hari with a fondness for South Asian flavours, quirky cocktails, and bar bites which sate appetites and pique interest.
A pauwa refers to a quarter bottle; and, here, the fact that the cocktails come in 180ml glass bottles; a chakhna is a morsel best eaten with alcohol. Each tipple-nibble combo (the menu begs you not to break up the recommended half-a-dozen pairings) is accompanied by its backstory, letting you in on fun little factoids about India’s cities and culinary hotspots. Although the legends are printed on the bottles’ brightly-coloured, custom-designed labels, it’s far more fun to hear them recounted by your server.
The venue’s main menu groups cocktails by region, and the pauwas are similarly inspired by locations of note. Thankfully the nose of the rosy-hued Old Delhi No. 6 is that of Chandni Chowk’s spice emporiums and not the hectic city’s more putrid perfumes, that cooling cordial Rooh Afza lending a beguiling herbal note to the citrusy vodka cocktail. You’d be hard pressed to find Delhi’s hawkers vending its complimentary chakhna – English cheddar gives the cheesy pakora chaat a distinctly Brindian accent.
From Mumbai, way out West, comes something more traditional: a katori-ful of misal; a Maharashtrian speciality whose combination of hot, wet veggies and crunchy chevdo (Bombay mix to those not in the know) renders it a divisive delicacy. Served in such a small portion and swiftly scoffed, its textures remain distinct from first bite to last – Dining Partner and I are united in our enjoyment.
We wash it down with Queen’s Necklace Punch; named, we are informed, for a curved street in Mumbai which, when lit up after dark, resembles a string of pearls. A delicate and aromatic combination of gin, cucumber, coriander, apple juice and lime, it’s green, clean, and absolutely ideal for a sultry summer evening.
Salt Lake Puchkas surprises me in that the classic Kolkata snack is reimagined as a tequila-based cocktail, its tart tamarind and berry flavours referencing the liquid that’s poured over the filling of the crisp semolina shells before they’re gulped in a single mouthful. This particular pauwa is paired with crumb-coated patties that Bengalis call ‘chops’; here made with beetroot, peanuts and carrot. They’re so good they bring a tear to the eye… one that’s joined by a few more when I realise we’ve eaten them all.
The chops might be all gone, but we’re going Goan with splendid spicy sausage croquettes (the state’s beloved choris arriving with the Portuguese). Pineapple-based Talli at Tito’s Lane is a libation which takes us on a journey down said lane; a bar-lined alley where you apparently start sober and stumble out the other end totally talli* (*pretty pissed). A good slug of rum along with the coconut water and lime means this powerful pauwa puts us well on the slippery slope towards tipsy – curry leaves adding a savoury edge that makes it all the more moreish.
We don’t need more but that’s not to say we don’t want it. The alluring aroma of saffron wafts our way, and, in its wake, a bottle of a pink potion labelled ‘Kesar Kasturi’. The cocktail’s colour is in tribute to Jaipur – India’s ‘pink city’; gin, citrus and rose join the noble spice that provided that pungent perfume; the whole thing is royally good. As are the beautifully-buttery potato-tapioca wafers that are gone in less than 60 seconds. On paper, they’re ‘papads’, in the mouth, they’re tiny pieces of heaven.
It might be night, but we finish with a Hyderabadi duo that’d do nicely for breakfast: a cone of the spicy snack mix, chor garam – traditionally served outside the Charminar mosque – contains black gram crisps which resemble Cornflakes; Nizam’s Punch is poured into chintzy china teacups; its sunny yellow hue owing to the inclusion of fresh turmeric root, its beguiling, beautiful perfume down to ‘biryani oil’ (yes, really).
We depart well-watered and well-fed, but not too talli and not too full. Although we’ve used Pauwa-Chakna as a good old girls’ night, one suspects it would be a great date night ice-breaker, providing plenty of food for thought alongside mercifully non-messy morsels and just enough alcohol to impart the desi version of Dutch courage. And if it all goes swimmingly, you could always amend your wedding vows to honour how it all began: ‘For richer, for Pauwa’…